A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
This episode we’ve got three short stories of Stone circles. There’s poor wedding planning, there’s a beautiful view ruined, and there’s a remote island community in midsummer, with cuckoos. Be afraid, be petrified! Musical credits, sources and more at: https://talesofthebritishisles.com/episode-26-stone-circles/
“I was afraid, I was petrified….”
This episode we’ve got three short stories of Stone circles.
There’s the lasting consequences of poor wedding planning, there’s a beautiful view ruined and there’s a remote island community in midsummer, with cuckoos. (No, not that remote island community.
“While you were out at the Rollright Stones I came and set fire to your shed“Half Man Half Biscuit, 24 Hour Garage People
Stories in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
The Wedding at Stanton Drew
It was a Saturday in Stanton Drew, a village in the southern county of Somerset. And this Saturday was a party day.
There weren’t that many opportunities for such revels in the busy, hard lives of the agricultural workers who made up most of the attendees of the day’s event. When not working for some lord, for themselves or bringing up their families there was church to attend on a Sunday. It all left precious little time for anything else.
But today was a wedding – and as such provided a rare opportunity for the whole community to get together and really let their hair down.
And this Saturday evening the drinking and revelry were already well underway.
It doesn’t much matter who the couple were really – this was more an event for the whole community that happened around them. They were simply an excuse for a party.
The ceremony itself had gone off without a hitch (or with a hitch I suppose – it had gone fine!) and now everyone had moved to a large field by the river for the entertainment.
The Bride and the Groom, their friends and family, the Vicar who had wed them. All were enjoying a great evening. There was sport – wrestling and such like, there was feasting, there was gossip .. but above all there was that lifeblood of community and perhaps even humanity – music – music and dancing.
A piper played the tunes and local amateurs joined in on makeshift drums and penny whistles. As the evening turned to night, darkness fell and the dancers were illuminated by great fires. Gradually the other activities subsided and the music and the dancing took over one and all.
The party was in full swing as midnight approached. So one can definitely understand the frustration when, a couple of minutes before the church clock stuck twelve, the piper who had been keeping them all so merry finished off a tune and then deliberately started putting his instrument away, making clear he had played his last for the evening.
“What’s this?” asked a surprised guest of the bride’s. “We’ve not finished yet!”
The piper gave his answer plain and simple but in a voice that brooked no disagreement: “Sunday draws very near.. and the Sabbath day has but one purpose: for the worship of our Lord. He commanded that we must keep it holy…. not work nor play but worship him…. And I shall of course do as he commands.”
And with that the piper took up his belongings, wished the company a polite farewell and set off into the night, to somewhat dumbfounded looks at the bride and groom.
“A pompously pious piper, well I never. Well can anyone else play?” asked the Groom.
“Anyone.. don’t be shy!” joined in the Bride – “We’ll pay you what you want, or we’ll go to heaven or hell if we need to… just wanna keep this party rolling!”
No sooner were these very unwise words out of her lips than a tall man clad in black stood up, from where he must have been sitting, at the every edge of the circle of firelight. The Bride didn’t quite recognise him, but there were a lot of people here from villages and farmsteads all around so that was no great wonder.
The man held in his hand a fiddle and rather than saying anything he raised the instrument to the edge of his angular chin and drew his bow across the string. A sound rang out.
“Ah-ha!” went the bride, exuberant again. And the people took their places in the circle once again as the fiddle player took up playing in earnest.
Tune after tune played, each as certified a banger as the next, without even a moment’s respite in between. The dancers whirled and whooped and a glorious time was had by one and all.
Until that is a man – perspiring and out of breath – decided that he’d best sit the next one out… maybe get a refill, have a smoke break, go the loo.
So he stopped dancing. No… what? His feet kept moving, his arms kept raising and falling.
I said he STOPPED DANCING.
But he didn’t.
“STOP!” he shouted. But it made no difference.
He looked around.. most of the others were still enjoying the music… but he could see some like him.. wildly looking around…. fear in their eyes. Still dancing.
The fire crackled roared, the people danced. The man turned his head to the fiddler…… the fiddler who smiled, a nasty little smile. Fire flashed in his red eyes.
The piper, who’d set camp in a nearby field heard the screams, the shrieks, the cries. He shook in terror… he covered his ears, but the howling continued the whole night through.
The next morning those villagers that had gone home early or had not been in attendance found the pious piper still covering his ears, almost out of his mind with fright. But as for the huge wedding party?
They did not find them.
But in their place, arrayed around the smouldering ashes of bonfires, in between abandoned crockery and dropped bottles…. were three circles of huge standing stones… each stone roughly the size of a person.
And the circles remain to this very day.. a warning to all to keep the Sabbath Holy and of the dangers of words said in haste.
The Army at Long Compton
For the next story we go about a hundred miles North East and many hundreds more back in time.
To a time when every village didn’t boast a church and the sanctity of keeping of the Sabbath were not known to every English man and woman.
A time when England itself was but fresh and not yet agreed upon and the country was fought over by wannabe rulers, both home grown and from all across Northern Europe.
The aspiring King in this story was one such – his exact allegiances are unknown and unimportant – a Christian or a pagan, Saxon or a Dane – it doesn’t really matter here.
What does matter is that he had fought bloody battles across the country and him and his army now found himself on the verge of a conquest of the whole land. Just a few battles stood before him and complete dominion.
They were camped in a field the night previous and it was very early morning when the King took a short walk away from the men to survey the lands ahead of them, and to plan out a course of action for the day.
Now at this same time a small group of his five most senior knights had gone out for their own innocent morning stroll, in the other direction, unbeknownst to the king.
And they were at this very moment some way away from the army having a hushed conversation about senior leadership performance targets, reward and recognition strategies and succession planning.
The King was making his way up the crest of a very small hill when he saw an old woman, wizened and bending, who yet deigned to speak to him, in all his military finery.
She was blunt and to the point: “What do you want oh King?”
Now people didn’t often just speak to the King so and he was taken a back.
“Ermm…. To cross the hill.. To see the valley I suppose?”
“This is my hill, these are my lands” replied the woman, “Why do you want to cross them?”
Regaining some of his composure the King said: “I am going to conquer all of England, to rule it as one Kingdom, under me!”
“Ahh, well.. as it happens I know a little of such things” and the modesty in those words belied the power in her voice. No one listening could doubt that somehow this old woman knew all there was to know about such matters.
I’ll tell you this King: “Seven Long strides more shalt thou take and if Long Compton thou can see, King of England shalt thou be.”
Long Compton was a village in the valley just over the brow of the hill.
The King took a careful look at the ground in front of him to the top of the hill, mentally measuring it up. It was easily seven strides… but he would take really big strides just in case. And as he took his strides he cried:
“Stick, Stock and Stone,
As King of England I shall be known”
But as he took his final one something very odd happened – the whole meadow rose up in front of him as if being hoisted up by invisible hands, completely blocking his view.
And the witch spoke up again, her voice filled now with power and menace:
“As Long Compton thou canst not see
king of England thou shall NOT be
Rise up stick and stand still stone
For king of England thou shalt be none
Thou and thou men grey stone shall be,
And I myself an Eldern tree.”
And out from the Witch the spell emanated – the wannabe King’s body warped horrifically and in a moment no man stood there but a huge standing stone. The spell spread outwards, caught the men breakfasting in a circle, caught the Knights who had been plotting, and finally reverberated back turning the Witch herself into an Eldern tree.
The stones – The King Stone, The King’s Men and the Whispering Knights, as they are known, have stood still as time has marched on around them.
Elders can be found growing around them still.
They are known collectively as the Rollright stones and it is said that on Midsummer’s Eve that if you cut into an Elder tree on the site then blood will flow from it – the Witch herself.
And it is just possible that, at that sight the King stone may shift, ever so slightly.
This last story is a bit of a ramble and in some ways more of a travelogue with a bit of ancient paganism thrown in.
Given this I’ve decided not to include it here – but there’s a podcast link on the page. Go and give it a listen. I can at least assure you that in a change in form no one actually turns into a stone!
Pictures from this episode’s stories
A small smattering of the stone circles featuried in this episode.
Photo credits – Bottom right, Stanton Drew Mike Peel, top left, Callanish SidBaility both by CC BY-SA 4.0. Top right, King’s stone Midnightblueowl, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Otta F. Swire
Otta F. Swire wrote beautiful, original books on the folklore of the Isles and Highlands of Scotland
Some other stone circles…
I really enjoy visiting stone circles and soaking in the romantic, magical atmosphere of these places.
This is a smattering of images of some of my recent visits to circles that do not feature in this episode, but which have a great number of stories about them. Better images are available online!
Featuring Stone Henge with some silly colours, Nine Stones Close (there are four of them), Avebury and Nine Ladies (there are nine of them)
The Wedding at Stanton Drew
If you want another version of the tale I rather enjoy this lyrical version of it. Perhaps give the episode a miss and just try this?
- The Outer Hebrides and Their Legends – Otta. F. Swire – I’m afraid this is one that you’ll have to buy if you want it
- Rollright stones – history and Legends in Porse & Poetry – I read quite a lot of different sources for the Rollrights but this contains a fair few of the stories
- A description of bath – John Wood – This is one the oldest versions of the Stanton Drew story – it’s very brief. I took most of my information from a large variety of sources telling essentially this same story but in much greater detail
Musical credits for Episode 26: Stone Circles
Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses
The ant’s built a city on his chest
Castle of darkess
Ben von Wildenhaus
Week Twenty five
Week Twenty six
Kevin Macleod (incompotech.com)
Welcome to Horrorland, CC BY 3.0
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